5-11 June 2015 #761

Follow the people

More than money is needed for post-earthquake rebuilding, help local communities
Bihari K Shrestha
Now that the date and venue for the donor conference for earthquake rebuilding has been fixed we have a three weeks to figure out how exactly the international community can help in Nepal’s reconstruction.

Despite chronic failures of successive governments as well as ad hoc donor policies, Nepal is known around the world for two effective home-grown innovations: the dramatic resurgence of forest cover and our achievement in mother and child health. Donors were involved in both, through catalytic inputs that did not cost a whole lot of money.



Gopen Rai

In the 1980s, there were catastrophic predictions about the denudation of the Himalaya. The Ministry of Forests, which was corrupt to the core as it is now, doggedly refused to allow local communities to manage their own forests. In 1987, when I was at the National Planning Commission, a World Bank mission came to town to decide on a $50 million Structural Adjustment Loan. They came to my office, and I was able to impress on the team that user management of forests should be a conditionality for the loan.

That did the trick. Thereafter, the Finance Ministry forced the Ministry of Forests to amend ground rules so that Forestry User Groups would be allowed to manage community forests. Today there are some 18,000 user groups and they are behind the success of Nepal’s community forestry program. I used to tell World Bank visitors later that while the Bank supported many projects in Nepal, only one of them was really successful. And it didn’t cost the Bank even one cent.

The second domestic innovation was the formation of Ama Samuha (Mothers' Groups) and their Female Community Health Volunteers in 1988 which now number 52,000 and have been primarily responsible for Nepal’s dramatic improvements in maternal and infant mortality rates. Agencies like USAID, UNICEF and UNFPA were involved in backstopping various components of this initiative. Donor funding for the program was, of course, vital but what made it successful was that it was a Nepali innovation implemented by Nepalis on the ground.

Despite the persistence of feudalistic order at the local level, the reason Forestry User Groups and Mothers’ Groups were successful was that the beneficiaries were themselves participants, and despite their caste, class and gender were involved in decision-making. This ensured transparency of management that, in turn, made it imperative for their leaders to be accountable.

The on-going tragedy for Nepal, however, is that despite the ‘representativeness’ of our ‘democracy’ for the last quarter of a century, these success stories were rarely replicated in other areas of development. The government and donors would do well to heed the lessons of these successful experiences when they meet this month to plan earthquake relief: money is not as important as accountability and ownership.

Contrary to its textbook definition, Nepal's democracy has consistently and increasingly been the government of the corrupt, for the corrupt and by the corrupt. And politicians themselves seem to have no problem accepting this. I have often been asked to address various political gatherings and I tell my audiences that Nepali society continues to remain feudalistic in nature and this manifests itself through ascriptive leadership with high caste accompanied by relative wealth being the main determinant. This entire superstructure is sustained and reinforced by extraction of resources without accountability.

Nearly all leaders in Nepal at all levels of governance have feudal backgrounds and mindsets, whichever party they belong to. For them, corruption is only one of the several means of extraction of resources from society and therefore most successful politicians in Nepal are necessarily corrupt. These words would often be greeted with resounding, but slightly nervous, laughter from the politicians present. But no one disagreed.

This system is often aided, abetted and propped up by donors. Despite 70 years of foreign aid, Nepal remains impoverished, our young are leaving in droves, and now we have the challenge of rebuilding a ravaged land. From past experience, the place to start would be to strengthen the inherent resilience of local communities to deal with the disaster.

Read also:

Political tectonics, Anurag Acharya

After a people's war, Bihari K Shrestha

Don't fix what ain't broke, Rubeena Mahato

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